June 25, 2007

Another side of Dad

The rest of the world has its view of Dan Jenkins, and I have mine

Editor's note: On the eve of covering his 55th consecutive Masters, Golf Digest Writer-at-Large Dan Jenkins was honored by the Golf Writers Association of America as the winner of the William D. Richardson Award for consistently outstanding contributions to golf. To honor Jenkins, we asked his daughter Sally, an award-winning columnist and best-selling author, to write an afterword to a collection of pieces he has written for us over the years, presented to him at the GWAA's annual dinner. This month she borrows Dan's space to provide another side of her father. We don't think he'll mind.

My father is, sadly, a fraud. There is the public account of him, and then there is my private one, and the two don't agree at all. For instance, there is the Dan Jenkins who pretends he'd sooner burn small children with cigarettes than pat them on the head, and then there is the adoring, lenient father I know. There is the guy whose profane wit can force a sharp intake of breath, and there is the husband who has been devotedly married for more than 40 years. There is the cavalier veranda lounger who never seemed to take a note, and then there is the writer I've witnessed at home, who works with unswerving concentration.

My brothers and I might be the only people, apart from my mother, who know him for the suave faker he really is. At some point, your childhood becomes your own property, and you see it for what it was. While you were a child, it belonged to your parents, and they cast it in their terms.

"You're having a happy childhood," my father told me.

"I am?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because I said so."

My father speared another forkful of Raviolios from my plate and ate them. It was a nightly ritual for him to sit with me and my two brothers and share our supper before he and my mother went out for the evening. On Monday nights we ate Raviolios and they went to P.J. Clarke's. On Tuesday we had fish sticks and they went to Elaine's. And so on. The phone numbers of the restaurants were pasted on the wall by the phone along with the days of the week.

Once, someone asked my younger brother what it was like to grow up the son of a sportswriter and author, and his imposingly elegant and successful wife. She was always opening critically acclaimed restaurants, and he was always reinventing forms of journalism and writing best sellers in alarmingly casual-seeming fashion.

My brother considered the question.

"They were out every night, and when they came home they went to Europe," he said.

Yet somehow my father, despite his globe-circling, and reputation for enjoying the smartening effects of scotch, managed to provide us with a childhood that was, in fact, happy and healthy. How did he accomplish this? One of his methods was a deceptive sobriety, another was a veiled attentiveness to his family, and yet another was a sly conscientiousness at his work.

The dinner hour was always ours. My parents would sit at the kitchen table with their three children, and their three tall glasses of milk. My father would talk to us while he stole bites of our baby food. Alphabet soup. Creamed corn. Franks and beans. Stouffer's frozen vegetables.

"Daddy?"

"Yes?"

"I learned a joke today."

"Tell it."

"What's green and lives in the sea?"

"What?"

"Moby Pickle."

He began giggling helplessly at the absurdity of the joke, and couldn't stop for the next five minutes, while around him, three pajamaed urchins capsized their milk with delight.

The rest of the world has its view of Dan Jenkins, and I have mine. It's impossible for me to read his life's work with professional detachment, because for every U.S. Open story, there was a family summer. The combined quality and volume of his writing on golf, as well as hundreds of other subjects, is all the more impressive to me in light of the fact that he managed to produce it while also attending school plays, writing checks to orthodontists, mustering private-school tuitions and lifting the family luggage. All of which he made seem effortless. His fathering style, interestingly, was not much different from his writing style, which is to say, excellence disguised as offhandedness.

Some of the stories, of course, represent absences. But not as many as you would think. He managed to be, despite my brother's joke, a vividly present father. He often took us with him; we scampered with impunity through press rooms, and carried hot coffee to him, and surely must have pestered him, though he never complained about it. Others might have found him acerbic; we only found him gently or hysterically funny. While his readers might be amazed to discover he had children, his children were amazed to discover he had readers.

Look again at the writing of Dan Jenkins, and ask yourself if it could have been as effortless to write as it is to read. Peruse the easy rhythms and the jauntiness of phrasing, and yet the unfailing truthfulness and the nail-on-the-head precision in each description. Consider the fact that, despite the ease with which the sentences pass, he almost never employs a shopworn, overused word, but rather finds the unexpected one, which also happens to be utterly right.

Which is the real Dan Jenkins, and which is a cunning veneer? I'll step aside and let someone else answer the question.

"Do you understand," my mother once said, "how hard your father works?"

The answer was no, at the time I didn't. It's only as an adult and a colleague that I've come to understand. Small things, details, return to me, and make more sense now. The curious fact that, though he was reputed to love his cocktails, I never once saw him drink at home. The steady metallic sound of a Royal typewriter as I went to sleep, and the sound of it again in the morning.

As an adult, I reread the old work and I look at the new work, and what I see in it is this: a constant stripping away of pretense, and of the profligate excesses of feeling that surround sports, to find the real people and truths underneath. An unwavering effort to think about things plainly and thoroughly, the better to describe them. Sound judgments, about what's funny and not, what's poignant and not, what's worthy and what is not. Constant restless experiments with form, and a lifelong refusal to go with the crowd, or to mail one in.

He comes from a generation of writers that adopted a demeanor of perpetual nonchalance, cigarettes dangling. He didn't talk much about writing. He never said, "Don't be a writer; you'll sentence yourself to a life of excruciating self-doubt and criticism." He never said, "It's one of the hardest professions in the world." He never said, "It's ditch digging, it's breaking rocks with a shovel." Instead, his instructions were his example.

He did say this: "Dad loves his work."

As a writer, I drew three lessons from him: the absoluteness of his concentration, the contrariness of his thinking, and the depth of his respect for good writing. All of which together can only be called a kind of integrity. "Learn your craft," he told me. "And don't ever let a thing go until it's as good as you can make it."

So I do something others don't, when it comes to my father. I take him seriously. God knows, somebody has to.

  • Sally Jenkins writes for our sister publication, Golf for Women, and The Washington Post, and is the author of It's Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts with Lance Armstrong. On May 2, Sally and Dan have something else to celebrate: She joins him in the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame, the first daughter-father team in the Hall's history. For highlights of past Dan Jenkins columns and stories, please see golfdigest.com/jenkins.*